All the Mountain King’s Men

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Grieg: Peer Gynt (Incidental Music)

Oiven Fjeldstad / London Symphony Orchestra

London CS6049

Slay him! The Christian man’s son has seduced
the fairest maid of the Mountain King!
Slay him! Slay him!

May I hack him on the fingers?
May I tug him by the hair?
Hu, hey, let me bite him in the haunches!
Shall he be boiled into broth and bree to me

Shall he roast on a spit or be browned in a stewpan?
Ice to your blood, friends!

-Lyrics to “In the Hall of the Mountain King”


Everybody has heard “In the Hall of the Mountain King” somewhere or another. The whole Suite was riffed by Duke Ellington in 1960. Nero & The Gladiators charted at number 48 with their version of the Mountain King. Nineteen sixty-seven brought a new version by The Who (“A Who-freakout arrangement” said one reviewer), which was followed by Electric Light Orchestra’s 1973 rendition; various metal bands have also jumped on the Mountain King bandwagon. Cinematically, it’s been used in Birth of Nation and Fritz Lang’s atmospheric M, along with such disparate places as The Social Network (the rowing scene with the Winklevoss twins), and even in Trolls. Even Mad Men has used the piece. Alton Towers, a British theme park, has Mountain King in their promotional videos.

Along with several other suites from Peer Gynt, In the Hall of the Mountain King permeates pop culture perhaps even more than the big hits of Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner. Grieg was commissioned to do the music for Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name. The play follows that well-known commoner-abducts-a-bride-on-her-wedding-night-and-abandons-her-so-he-can-travel-the-world trope, and because of the sordidness of the work, Grieg was at first reluctant to set it to music.

He finished the incidental music in 1875 while vacationing in Italy. The play was staged in 1876 in Oslo; it was an opulent production, with Grieg himself conducting the local orchestra. He then re-orchestrated the music again in 1885, and the play had a revival in 1902. In a final version from 1908 based on new material, Grieg once more retrofitted the work: now it comprised 23 individual pieces and lasted for about an hour and a half, replete with soloists and a chorus.

Because of its length, that version is rarely performed in its entirety, and instead the work was arranged into 2 suites, with the most popular pieces among them. And how popular they are. Not one to short-shrift his audience on ear-worm melodies without a ton of depth (he’s like Saint-Saens in a colder climate), Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suites are like metonymies of classical music itself to a lot of people who don’t otherwise listen to classical music.  There’s “Anitra’s Dance” for strings, and “Morning” which, by my count, has appeared at the beginning of every Loony Tunes short out there.

And finally the big number: “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, referred to above in its many contemporary iterations. Basically, it’s a brief, simple theme in F major repeated faster and faster, in ever increasing volume, a la Bolero, until it reaches it’s ear-splitting, rambunctious zenith.

An early London reissue, this Stereophonic release has an unabashedly campy sleeve design. The anti-hero sits lounging in what appears to be the getup of some Swiss yodeler. Standing on a pedestal facing him, a blond Salome-type bombshell is attempting to charm him with her whiles, or so it would seem.

Whipper-Snapper

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Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 2 / Ravel: Piano Concerto in G major

Leonard Bernstein, piano & conductor / New York Philharmonic / Columbia Symphony Orchestra

Columbia ML 5337

When a piano concerto starts off with the crack of a whip, you know it’s going to be very different from most music you’ve heard. Such is the intro of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G (1929-31), and from there it’s like some experiment in jazzing up classical. In that regard, Bernstein is a fabulous interpreter, being a composer of jazzy works from West Side Story to his more serious 3 symphonies, not to mention his prolific conducting of pretty much everything in the symphonic and the concerto repertoire up to that time.

On this rare mono recording from Columbia, Bernstein conducts from the piano (there’s only a few such recordings of him at the ivories, with another notable one being Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 15), playing Ravel, along with Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 from 1957–two very different concertos.

The Shostakovich concerto was a birthday gift to his son. For a present, it doesn’t skimp on starkness or intensity, but it does have some uncharacteristically lyrical, almost sentimental themes in the slow middle movement. Something of a polar opposite of Shostakovian austerity, the Ravel is colorfully flamboyant. After the freewheeling opening movement, an Adagio assai presents a lengthy songlike melody that’s almost jarringly classical in comparison. The brief Presto begins harmonically before the tune is sabotaged by dissonances from the brass and wind sections, and after a kerfuffle between them, the same four chords that set the whole concerto in motion bring it to a conclusion.

It’s certainly a virtuoso work, calling on the performer to navigate a spate of moods, styles and rhythms, and Leonard Bernstein pulls it off admirably.

Francescatti’s Bruch

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Bruch: Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra

with Beethoven: Two Romances

Zino Francescatti, violin / Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York / Dimitri Mitropoulos / Columbia Symphony Orchestra / Jean Morel

Columbia 4575

In the populous domain of Romantic violin concertos, there’s a lot to pick from. You can choose between Beethoven’s op. 61, Mendelssohn’s op. 64 or the Brahms. Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is one of the most played, possibly just ahead of Jean Sibelius’s, and that’s just counting the most well-known. Each has been recorded a plethora of times, with the best violinists. The sound of the violin–majestic, towering, melancholic–makes it more than just a virtuosic vehicle designed for hotshot doyens (although that’s never lacking in the above-mentioned works either).

Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1 is like some archetype of the form. It was completed, with considerable hemming and hawing by the composer, in 1866, and was intended for the great¬† virtuoso Joseph Joachim. From the beginning it was a smash hit, though after a while Bruch couldn’t stand it and refused to listen to it anymore.

Despite his strong feelings, it’s become one of the performed works for violin. As part of the standards, it’s shot through with an empathic Romanticism. The violin soars above the orchestra like it’s rising out of the accompaniment in the Prelude and then softens to lullaby strains in the Adagio middle movement, with triplicated themes voiced equally between soloist and symphony. The energetic Finale is an extravaganza of virtuosity, with melodies strung from national airs and folks songs, and composed with unrelenting lyricism.

Zino Francescatti is the virtuoso in question on this Columbia mono LP, with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the P-SO of NY. The violinist was known for his championing of contemporary works, like those of Milhaud and Szymanowski. He’s most esteemed for his Mendelssohn recordings, however, along with this concerto.

Satie & Picasso

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Piano Music of Erik Satie, Vol. 1

Aldo Ciccolini, piano

Angel 36459

My work is completely phonometrical.

-Erik Satie


As far as classical music eccentrics go, Eric Alfred Leslie (nee Erik) Satie is the weirdos weirdo. A dapper gentleman who inhabited a filthy apartment in Paris on either side of the turn of the twentieth century, he was a one man Theatre of the Absurd. If you wanted to compile a list of his many oddities, it might start like this: 1. Founded his own religion. 2. Would eat nothing that wasn’t white. 3. Brought a hammer with him wherever he went. 4. Owned an impressive collection of over 100 umbrellas. And that’s just the beginning.

Today, his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes are his most popular works (the Gymnopedie No. 1 must be up there with Fur Elise as one of the most played pop classical pieces). Instead of choosing a particular tempo he’d poeticize his piano music with tempo indications like “Don’t be proud”, “Corpulent” or “Don’t stop”. His piano music, especially performed on this album by the best Satie interpreter ever, Aldo Ciccolini, is filled with an innocence that does never diverts the music’s mysterious core. He’s also considered the midwife of minimalism, and nowhere is that more evident than in his 1893 “Vexations”– a simple bass-line and chords to be repeated 840 times in exactly the same way.

Pablo Picasso and Erik Satie first collaborated on Parade (1917), a ballet with a scenario by Jean Cocteau and danced by the Ballet Russes. Its jarring cardboard costumes, which were nearly impossible to move in, and Cubists sets (both done by Picasso) involves a troupe of carnival performers trying to get people to watch their show. Parade so riled up audiences with its purposefully aggravating inaction that one viewer slapped Satie in the face after a performance. The ensuing riot, by most accounts, was more of a melee than Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring had been 4 years earlier. The poet Apollonaire coined the term “surrealism” in his program notes for the ballet.

In comparison to that extravaganza, of course, Satie’s solo works are marked by a calmness encroaching on ennui, but always with that same undercurrent of disquietude. The portrait on this Angel sleeve gets to the essence of Satie. In Picasso’s line drawing, the composer sits in a typical pose, jacket a bit slouchy around the contours of the chair. But his eyes look restless, and his hands are two oversized unruly beasts resting in his lap. The image is an apt visual metonymy of the tranquil bizarreness that so characterizes Satie’s musical style.

Flamenco Dancing in Ancient Rome

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De Falla: Quatro Piezas Espanolas / Fantasia Baetica / Three Dances from El Sombrero de Tres Picos / Suite from El Amor Brujo

Alicia de Larrocha, piano

London CS6881

Along with a handful of others, Manuel De Falla, born in 1876, was one of Spain’s greatest composers. And Alicia de Larrocha, born in 1923, was one of Spain’s greatest musicians. It should be no shocker that putting the two together produced an album of unusually high standards.

De Larrocha’s Mozart recordings for Decca are just one of her claims to fame. She is also notable for perhaps being the shortest concert pianist ever–a few inches under five feet, but with a hand span stretching well over an octave. With De Fall’s classical, sultry compositions, her polished approach is incomparable.

All the tracks on this London re-issue are situated squarely in the composer’s flavorful Andalusian period. Folk dances and popular nationalist melodies step in and out of extremely tight classical structures. Yet it’s the Fantasia Baetica, from 1919, that stands out above the rest. From the Roman name for Southern Spain, it draws on flamenco and ancient history, and was dedicated to Arthur Rubinstein.

Pianist Paul Jacobs said that its chords are based on “guitar tuning” and has a “harsh percussive quality reminiscent of castanets and heel stompings”. The Baetica is epic in scale, uncomfortable and extremely difficult to perform. It sounds a bit like a mix between Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Bizet’s Variations chromatiques de concert (also rarely played, but featured on a terrific Columbia recording by Glenn Gould). In the wrong hands, the Fantasia Baetica can be more of a tactile rather a musical experience. Performed by de Larrocha, however, it’s a ravishing dance and a totally essential recording.

Hummel Pie

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Hummel: Piano Sonatas Nos 1, 3 & 6

Ian Hobson, piano

Arabesque ABQ6564

Johann Nepomuk Hummel is not a name you come across every day, if ever. In his day, the early 1880s, Hummel was triply famed as a child prodigy, Mozart’s best student and the successor to Haydn, starting in 1804, as the Esterhazy’s private concertmaster. And no, he’s not also the creator of those zaftig porcelain figurines ornamenting you in-laws living room. Today, Hummel is known mainly for his concertos and piano sonatas.

Three of the latter appear here. Unsurprisingly, the sonatas are Mozart-Lite: the 1st sonata sounds like a sketch for any number of Mozart’s middle-period sonatas. There a few moments of the brooding romanticism then beginning to trend in the era: the opening of the Sonata No. 3 is actually quite dark, before tinkling off to more familiar terrain, only hinting at it’s bleak introduction in the next two movements.

In the Sonata No. 6, Hummel returns for the most part to his roots. Yet there’s a flash in the 2nd movement (oddly named Un Scherzo all’antico) where the composer spins out music that could be mistaken for late Beethoven, before again skirting back to Mozartian classicism.

This 1980s digital recording from Arabesque has a very capable pianist in Ian Hobson, though Stephen Hough’s 2003 performance on Hyperion (he includes 3 other sonatas recently authenticated as Hummel’s) is perhaps even better. A painted engraving of a stormy boat race in Hummel’s day decks out the sleeve, and you can practically feel the spray coming off the waves.

In and Out of Beethoven’s Shadow

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Brahms: Symphony No. 1

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Westminster WGS 8166

Any ass can see that.

-Johannes Brahms replying to a comment that his First Symphony sounded too much like Beethoven


Hans von Bulow, the Romantic conductor and composer, said that Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 could just as well be called Beethoven’s Symphony No. 10, and there is excellent reason for his quip.

Brahms was forty-three when he completed it, in 1876, on one of the Baltic Islands (one can imagine him, trademark mocha on the table in front of him, taking his usual afternoon nap on a lounge chair). His Piano Concerto No. 1 was begun as his first symphony, and it is basically a symphony with an extensive piano part. The problem for Brahms and the symphony undertaking was essentially Beethoven, from whose shadow he’d had been trying to get out of for some time. Being a Beethoven-phile like any self-respecting composer of the day, he knew he would have to surmount the master in order to attain his own orchestral voice. And like all struggles against a father-idol, it was a neurotic one. The anxiety of influence indeed. His First Symphony, therefore, is a coming-to-terms with Beethoven’s monolithic hold, a Freudian act of overcoming.

To quote Michael Steinberg in his Symphony: A Listener’s Guide, the symphony is a “dense thicket” of sounds in more or less “contrary motion”. There’s always a certain hardness to Brahms’s music, a rigid adherence to form, which he was well aware of, and wished at times that he had Dvorak’s ear for melodies. But the First Symphony is Brahms at his most elegiac.

The Big Theme of the work comes in the Allegro, and here Brahms finally tackles the shadow of Beethoven in a huge way, and you can practically hear his personal, agonized bout with LvB at every measure. (There’s a hair-raising moment in Celibidache’s recording for EMI in which the conductor lets out a startling guttural shout, and I always think of this as him channeling Brahms).

In many ways, the Big Theme is a distorted mirror-image of the Ode to Joy, and it’s introduced with one of the great pauses in classical music, like a breath being inhaled before Brahms makes the plunge to paraphrase Beethoven and then to strike out on his own. The theme itself is a crystalline, undecorated hymn. Then, without dallying, the music hurtles forward, propelled by the final note of the theme, which is not to be heard again in its pure form.

The finale is a coruscating, accelerating, halting iteration of the theme going through stupendous, thrilling transfigurations. With an enormity that seems to come from an abyss of pent-up emotion, Brahms unleashes the full orchestra in a torrent of string tremolos and recapitulations of what’s been heard from beginning to end, before finding its own ferocious autonomy. This is Brahms moving away from Beethoven’s supersonic orbit and hurtling along to his own trajectory, even if the gravitational pull of Planet Beethoven is a constant.

What an apple on a scale has to do with the symphony, as this Westminster design has it, is anyone’s guess.

Cosmic Romanticism

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Saint-Saens: Symphony No. 3 “Organ”

Gaston Litaize, organ / Chicago Symphony Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim

Deutsche Grammophon 2530 619

There goes the French Beethoven.

-Charles Gounod, after hearing Saint-Saens’s 3rd Symphony


I’ve always considered Saint-Saens a gateway to more “classical” classical music. His 5 piano concertos are entertaining melody machines, with few pretensions and a very big Romanticism. If you equated classical composers of the period to directors of blockbusters today, Brahms would be Spielberg, Wagner is Michael Bay, Bruckner might be Christopher Nolan, Dvorak is Tarantino (obviously!) and Saint-Saens would have to be Paul Feig, or some other helmsman of crowd-pleasing rom-coms with moments of seriousness and real sentiment. Saint-Saens is universally known for his Carnival of the Animals; probably it’s the first symphonic work marketed exclusively to children and parents. The same year it came out, 1886, marked the appearance of his grandest work.

And grandeur is a good descriptor of the 3rd Symphony. Tom Service, in the Guardian, makes a compelling case that the 3rd is one of the period’s greatest orchestral works, and that it should not deter listeners that the main theme from the finale has been used in the film Babe and as the national anthem for Atlantium, a micronation founded by three teenagers and located in Australia (and which sounds like some Borgesian jest).

For all it’s quotable melodies and larger-than-life symphonism, the 3rd is structurally experimental, employing, along with a huge symphony, a part for piano (it takes four hands to pull of the blazing figurations) and, famously, an organ. It’s also arranged in two parts instead of the obligatory four. Like a Liszt tone-poem, the 3rd is bursting with color and episode, and is arguably the best work Saint-Saens would compose. The monumental finale, even by the standards of late 19th century finales, is truly universe-rattling, with an organ outro that’s so deep and alien in the symphonic domain that it sounds like vibrations from a distant planet interfering with the sound-waves of the recording.

Sarcastic Darkness

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Prokofiev: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 3 / Piano Sonata No. 3

Gary Graffman, piano / George Szell / The Cleveland Orchestra

Columbia MS 6925

Anybody who knows me knows I’m a Prokofiev freak. The Piano Concerto No. 2 reaches levels of virtuosity, poetry and lyricism that can’t be surpassed. And when you add in the Piano Sonatas, the 6th Symphony, Visions Fugitives, the string quartets and the violin concertos and the cello sonatas and the operas, you’ve got a body of work that touches on everything from romanticism to atonality with complete originality.

Of all the concertos, the 3rd (1921) is the most performed. As with so many of his works, Prokofiev offsets striking lyricism with sarcastic dissonances and little inside jokes, like some postmodern standup riffing on his own material. A sweet clarinet intro leads into an orchestral crescendo, which is augmented by bursts from the piano, turning quickly into a somewhat manic fantasia.

Later, lines and lines of octaves in triplicated rhythm force the pianists hands to practically play on top of each other. The opening is recapped in variously structured ways, which leads to a coda of triads and glissandi and incredibly nimble 16th-note arpeggios before ending with open C octaves that gives the piece that meta feel. And that’s just the first movement. Next up, the Andantino is basically a set of variations, while in the last movement, Prokofiev said, a fight breaks out between pianist and orchestra. Here and in the 1st Concerto, which also appears on this album, Prokofiev is a one man history of classical music, blending and bending classicism, neoclassicism, serialism and romanticism into a single intricate package.

Several excellent recordings of the 3rd have made their way onto vinyl, with Argerich/Abbado on DG from the 1960s near the top, along with performances by Gutierrez, Kissin and Bronfman more recently. For me, Graffman/Szell is the gold standard. The pianist digs in with a clarity and ferocity you wouldn’t believe possible considering the hyper-virtuosity needed to pull of these concertos.

Rach-y Road

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Rachmaninoff: Symphony No. 2

William Steinberg / Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra

Command Classics (35mm) CC 11006 SD

Any music of Rachmaninov (or Rachmaninoff, depending on who you’re asking) without a piano is like Karl Marx without a beard–it just doesn’t work. I’ve never been a fan of his his 2nd Symphony; somehow they come off as somehow listless, at least the recordings that I’ve heard.

Rachmaninov’s symphony, in the classical 4-movement structure, was his attempt to overcome the truly hostile criticism of his First at the end of the 1890s, which had caused him no end of self-doubt and even led him to seek hypnosis. And it’s certainly is one damned brooding symphony.

As David Gutman, in Gramophone, exhaustively chronicles, that could be the result of many bad recordings, which don’t quite capture the cinematic drama of the work, but come off as sentimental sludge. His go-to recording is, surprisingly, Andre Previn’s, and this William Steinberg album gets little more than barely a nod.¬† But this recording, using 35mm technology, is extremely well engineered, with symphonic layers coming through wonderfully. The album art, too, is engaging, and ripe for interpretation: Is it an expressionist rendering of the symphony itself, or could be a mouse hole in a quirkily painted bohemian cafe?